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Stress Reduces Dietary Self-Control

Stress Reduces Dietary Self-Control

A challenging morning meeting, a new assignment or an upset client at work may affect whether we go for that extra chocolate chip cookie following lunch.

A new study seeks to explain this behavior by demonstrating how stress influences a person’s ability to retain dietary control.

Specifically, as described in the journal Neuron, researchers placed human volunteers in a similar food choice scenario to explore how stress can alter the brain to impair self-control when we’re confronted with a choice.

“Our findings provide an important step towards understanding the interactions between stress and self-control in the human brain, with the effects of stress operating through multiple neural pathways,” said lead author Silvia Maier, a graduate student in neuroeconomics at the University of Zurich’s Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research.

“Self-control abilities are sensitive to perturbations at several points within this network, and optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from multiple brain regions rather than a simple on/off switch.” She emphasized that much work still remains, however, to fully understand the mechanisms involved.

In the study, 29 participants underwent a treatment known to induce moderate stress in the laboratory before they were asked to choose between two food options.

An additional 22 participants did not undergo the treatment, which involved being observed and evaluated by the experimenter while immersing a hand in an ice water bath for three minutes, before choosing between the food options.

All of the participants who were selected for the study were making an effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so the study presented them with a conflict between eating a very tasty but unhealthy item and one that is healthy but less tasty.

Researchers found that stress appears to slant people toward the tastier, unhealthy choice.

They found that when individuals chose between different food options after having experienced the stressful ice bath treatment, they overweighed food taste attributes and were more likely to choose an unhealthy food compared with people who were not stressed.

The effects of stress were also visible in the brain. Stressed participants’ brains exhibited altered patterns of connectivity between regions including the amygdala, striatum and the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Researchers believe this activity essentially reduces an individuals’ ability to exercise self-control over food choices. Only some of these changes were associated with cortisol, a hormone commonly linked to stress.

The investigators say that their study indicates that even moderate levels of stress can impair self-control.

“This is important because moderate stressors are more common than extreme events and will thus influence self-control choices more frequently and for a larger portion of the population,” said senior author Dr. Todd Hare.

“One interesting avenue for future research will be to determine whether some of the factors shown to protect against structural brain changes following severe stress, such as exercise and social support, can also buffer the effects of moderate stress on decision making,” he said.

There was also a good deal of variation in the degree to which stress affected individuals in the study, so it will be important to investigate why some people are more resilient than others.

Source: Cell Press/EurekAlert
Woman eating a donut photo by shutterstock.

Stress Reduces Dietary Self-Control

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Stress Reduces Dietary Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Aug 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.